The past year saw a major shift in the economy. It navigated a potential triple-dip recession to achieve sustained, although fragile, growth. Our research indicates a sea change, as firms feel more confident and want to invest and grow their businesses.
I feel 2014 is going to be the year of small business. We've already seen the main political parties begin to set out their priorities for the coming years as we approach the 2015 general election.
Almost all of the UK's 4.9m businesses are relatively small, so their votes will really count and every party will contend for their attention. As a leading UK business organisation, we have a major role and our influence has never been stronger.
Issues affecting small firms that have been hot topics last year include energy, business rates and access to finance.
I continue to be shocked by the high cost of business rates. In some cases, small firms pay more in rates than rent. This cannot be right and the appeals process is often lengthy and unfair.
Given the cost and unfair processes, we are pleased the government committed to address the appeals backlog in the Autumn Statement, a key ask for us. The extension of small business rate relief was another win. However, our work on business rates is not done. We will be stepping up our pressure for a fundamental review of the system.
The business energy market is also in desperate need of reform. We want to see radical measures taken to increase transparency in the market and allow small firms to switch easily to more competitive energy deals.
Our research shows that utilities costs are the biggest barrier to growth for about a fifth of small businesses. Unlike households, small firms cannot access published prices, making it almost impossible to work out their future overheads. It isn't right that most micro-businesses consume the same amount of energy as an average household, yet are treated differently.
They must be offered the same level of regulatory protection as domestic consumers.
It is now accepted by all political parties that reform to the structure of the energy market is vital for fairness. As well as reforming markets, there is increasing recognition that small and especially micro-businesses that behave like domestic consumers should be afforded similar levels of protection in the market. This is an important step in the right direction.
This facet of the market has been overlooked for many years, but it must be addressed if the smallest firms are to get a fair deal from the big energy companies.
We are pressing for small businesses to be treated like consumers in the area of flood insurance too. We believe measures to help households should be extended to small firms as well.
There is much exciting work for us to do in the year ahead. Alongside the British Chambers of Commerce we are leading an independent survey of small business banking services, more about which will be announced soon.
We have also been appointed one of four organisations which can take a "super-complaint" about financial services to the Financial Conduct Authority. This is a big challenge, but one we are ready for in order to stand up for small firms that have been unfairly treated.
In the spring, our influence will be clear and visible as we aim to demonstrate total cross-party support at the highest level. We are holding our first policy conference alongside big-hitting speakers from the worlds of politics and business.
Karen Gordon Mills, former administrator of the US Small Business Administration and Cabinet Member in the Obama administration, will speak, as will senior UK ministers and political speakers.
The economy continues to show signs of recovery, with further growth expected next year. This must be underpinned by boosting the skills base and getting young people into the job market.
We have long called for government to look at introducing National Insurance contributions that may encourage small firms to take on staff, and the employment allowance and the young persons' allowance will have a positive impact when they begin.
We have appointed Young Enterprise as an official charity and we will make the most of this partnership, working to encourage education around enterprise in schools across the country.
As optimism rises, many firms will look at exports as a way to expand and grow their business; our latest research shows that, increasingly, our members are thinking about exporting.
While Europe remains a key trading partner, many members want to target faster-growing nations such as Brazil, India, Russia and China.
I am delighted to be an ambassador for the International Festival of Business Ambassadors in Liverpool in June and July. This event will aim to showcase all that is good about UK businesses and the products made here.
We have a wealth of talented innovators and entrepreneurs capable of sustaining the economic recovery – it is time we let the rest of the world know just how strong our reserves really are.
The FSB also turns 40 in 2014, and our national conference will reflect on this, back in the North-West where the organisation was founded. It will celebrate the innovation and entrepreneurship of our 200,000 members and their ability to create wealth for the UK in good times and bad.
John Allan is national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB)
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